Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Youth crisis facing Hong Kong

By Yick Hong Lam - AFF Hong Kong correspondent

Xavier Chen scored a debut goal against Malaysia
After so many years, the atmosphere surrounding football in Taiwan is rising for the first time. 

The national team has drawn more public support, President Ma Ying-jeou published a public encouragement to the national team before World Cup qualifying, with the second-leg home game against Malaysia attracting 15,335 on 3rd July 2011.

Even the result of the matches is positive. After being defeated 1-2 in the first round. The hard fighting Taiwan national team earned a 3-2 win against an opponent that used to be too strong for them to handle, a result has even impressed the football fans in Hong Kong.

There is so much to tell in the football history between Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Hong Kong have a proud football history, especially in the 1950s to 70s. The league standard was pretty high at the time. The best Hong Kong player of his generation, Cheung Chi-Doy, joined the England first division side Blackpool in 1960, and become the first ever Asian player to play in European professional leagues.

However, the Hong Kong national team have no great history.

Due to the historical and political reasons, many of the top rank football stars, who were born and grew up in the city, chose to represent Chinese Taipei (i.e. Taiwan national team) in the 60s, including Cheung Chi-Doy and many others.

Chinese Taipei were a notable force in Asia at the time, once finishing third a Asian Cup and even becoming two times champions at the Asian games. Before the agreement for the Taiwan national team to stop calling-up Hong Kong citizens to play for Chinese Taipei in 1971, Hong Kong football had arguably given its glory at international level to Taiwan for free.

In the 1980s the quality of football in Hong Kong dropped dramatically. Despite a short revival during late 80s to early 90s, everything has gone downhill again ever since.

Without the Hong Kong imports, the football desert Taiwan could not repeat the international level success they once had.

But now, Taiwan seems to be ready to go up again.

There are two outstanding players in the current Taiwan national team squad. Arguably the biggest name is Xavier Chen.

The Belgian-born Taiwanese has been an established player in Belgium first division for years, playing with local powerhouse club R.S.C. Anderlecht and also the Belgium national U19 side.

Chen has only recently given the nod to Taiwan as he had originally hoped for a call-up from Belgium national team. He had his Taiwan national team debut in the WCQ against Malaysia in the second leg and scored a goal on debut.

Local boy Chen Po-Liang has also demonstrated his ability to the Hong Kong fans last season. Having always been the only attacking threat in Taiwan national team, as a foreign player he may not be among the top players in Hong Kong first division, but he showed quality that not many Hong Kong players in the same position can match.

And if you consider his age, he is probably better than all of the Hong Kong players of the same generation.

Apart from the two professional players, Victor Chou, who was born in Spain and currently a youth player in Segunda DivisiĆ³n B side UD Salamanca, who sat on the bench in the two World Cup qualifying matches, has strong potential to become the third professional player in the Taiwan national team.

Whilst they are rare cases at the moment, they are also starting a trend for Taiwanese players.

Of course we cannot have any hopes of finding our own Xavier Chen, but how come the so called "Football Desert" of Taiwan can have a Chen Po-Liang and we can't?

The Hong Kong Sports Institute
The quality of Hong Kong football has been dropping dramatically since 2000. The exclusion of football as a "Focus Sport" at the Hong Kong Sports Institute (HKSI, named Jubilee Sports Centre in the past), regardless of the popularity of the sport in the city, has always been regarded as the biggest factor.

Ex-South China star Yau Kin-Wai, who was also one of the notable HKSI graduates in early 90s, expressed his view in recent interview.

In his opinion, the reason the HKSI graduates were absolutely better was because they had four private football pitches to practice. They don't need to share it with the public. They can carry out intensive training plans at their young age. They could also do additional practice if any of them wanted.

Now the youth training at clubs level cannot provide the same facilities or environment as HKSI did in the past. South China youth coach and Hong Kong football legend Wong Man-wai has shared the same opinions, but also being critical on the attitude of the youth players.

Deceased legendary youth coach Lai Sun-Chuen had also pointed out in past interviews about the quality of the youth coaches in Hong Kong and also the responsibilities on youth training on clubs.

Now we don't have HKSI to train up good young players, what have the clubs have been doing since 2000?

If clubs and HKFA both cannot provide long term and well planned youth training, without a professional youth training, even if we have a professional leagues, is it a big surprise our players standard are being caught by players trained in an amateur environment? Our youth training is of an amateur status anyway.

There are so many aspects we need to improve, including:

- a better managed league;
- players with better attitude/determination or brings in better foreign players.

The Phoenix Project will focus on forming a new league structure, a better organised league and calls for more investment and capital from the clubs. In another words, a more professional league.

However, if we take the J. League as an example, apart from the investment in marketing or bringing top quality foreign players, the JFA and the clubs have never taken the focus away from youth development.

And whilst the foreign players in the J. League aren't of the stature they once were when the league was launched, the standard of the local players has never dropped.

If Hong Kong don't improve the structures and facilities for the training of youth players, is it really an unreasonable fear that the Taiwan National Team will surpass us one day?

And this time, without any import players from us.


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